A senior Republican senator publicly expressed on Sunday what party leaders mostly have whispered, calling the White House "an adult day-care center" in a caustic reply to President Trump's weekend of tweets and off-the-cuff comments attacking the senator and a range of other targets.
The extraordinary Twitter exchange between the president and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee captured the degree of disruption that Trump has brought to the Republican Party he now heads. And it put his agenda perhaps further at risk in a Senate where Republicans have just a two-vote margin of control, as they gird to battle over signature issues like tax reform.
The episode also served to advance the narrative of a White House in disarray — the very subject that Corker earlier in the week had alluded to, seemingly setting off the president — even as administration officials sought anew to tamp down that notion.
Trump took the first shot, in a series of tweets before he left the White House for his golf club in Virginia.
"Didn't have the guts to run!" Trump said of Corker, who announced last month he would not seek reelection. Trump claimed that the Tennessee Republican, who has been in the Senate since 2007, had "begged" for his endorsement before dropping out of the race.
"He also wanted to be Secretary of State," the president wrote. "I said 'NO THANKS.'"
Trump castigated Corker, who is the widely respected chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as "largely responsible for the horrendous Iran Deal," referring to the landmark 2015 accord between Tehran and six world powers, including the United States, to block Iran's nuclear arms development.
The president, who vowed to abandon the deal as a candidate, is expected in the coming week to decertify the pact, putting the onus on Congress to decide whether to reimpose sanctions.
In what could be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, Trump said he expected Corker to be a "negative voice and stand in the way of our great agenda."
It was perhaps the most incendiary of a weekend of eye-catching presidential fulminations about North Korea, Democrats, disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and professional football players. Corker's response was short and stunningly sharp, comparing the White House to facilities for people with dementia.
"It's a shame the White House has become an adult day-care center," he wrote. "Someone obviously missed their shift this morning."
With striking bluntness, Corker gave voice to many Republican colleagues in Congress who are vexed by Trump's penchant for Twitter outbursts punctuating the early morning, late night and weekends; often they are called upon to respond, by the media and constituents. More broadly, many question in private — as Corker has publicly — the president's fitness for office.
Corker's chief of staff, Todd Womack, issued a statement contesting factual elements of Trump's tweets. Womack said the president sought to dissuade the senator — a campaign supporter and, early on, a formidable legislative ally — from retiring, and volunteered more than once that he would endorse the senator.
The discord between the two men flared into the open last week, when Corker praised several of Trump's senior advisors for helping to stave off "chaos." He made it clear that he meant chaos caused by the president — not, as White House aides later suggested, general global chaos.
"I think Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis and chief of staff Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos," the senator said Wednesday, referring to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly.
Even before announcing that he did not intend to run in 2018, the senator had expressed distinct reservations about Trump.
In August, after Trump said that white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Va., were no more to blame for deadly violence there than counter-protesters, Corker said Trump "has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful."
Trump has previously tangled with other senior Republican senators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John McCain of Arizona.
His recent defeat on healthcare, for which Trump blames McCain, puts even more importance on the president's proposed tax overhaul. Yet Corker recently served notice that he will not back a tax plan that adds one penny to federal deficits, after the White House and congressional Republican leaders agreed the tax cuts could add up to $1.5 trillion over 10 years to the debt.
If Trump does move to decertify the Iran nuclear deal and kick the matter to Congress, Corker, as Foreign Relations Committee chairman, would play a significant role.
Separately, in tweets on Saturday, Trump once again caused consternation within the political establishment and in world capitals by hinting at military action against North Korea, keeping alive tensions with the isolated nation and distancing himself further from his top aides who favor diplomacy.
"Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid," he said, leaving unclear what money he was talking about. The approach, he wrote, "hasn't worked" and ended up "making fools of U.S. negotiators."
"Sorry, but only one thing will work!" the president concluded, ominously but without elaboration.
The president started on Twitter early Saturday with a post confirming that he'd been in touch with the Senate Democratic leader to gauge interest in a healthcare deal: "I called Chuck Schumer yesterday to see if the Dems want to do a great HealthCare Bill. ObamaCare is badly broken, big premiums. Who knows!"
Yet Trump made clear that he insists on repealing the Affordable Care Act, not fixing it, and Schumer was quick with a statement that repeal is "off the table."
In the brief comments to reporters on Saturday, Trump also took a swipe at Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, saying he was "not at all surprised" by revelations in the New York Times that the movie producer and Democratic donor has repeatedly paid to settle charges of sexual harassment.
When a reporter noted that Trump was commenting on the anniversary of last year's preelection release of the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape from 2005, in which he bragged in vulgar terms about assaulting women by grabbing them by the genitals, Trump once again dismissed the allegations against him as "locker room talk."
On Sunday, he appeared eager to stoke the controversy over NFL players who kneel in protest during the national anthem. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, left an Indianapolis Colts game after several players from the opposing team, the San Francisco 49ers, opted to "take a knee."
Afterward, the president claimed credit for his vice president's walkout, tweeting that he had instructed Pence beforehand to leave the stadium if any players knelt — "disrespecting our country." Players have characterized the protests as their stand against racial injustice and police brutality against African Americans.